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(photo credit: Viva Sarah Press)
The apartheid state of South Africa is gone, said world renowned director Peter Brook yesterday, but the apartheid condition continues to exist all over the world for great numbers of people "who have no existence unless they can [prove it on] a piece of paper; who cannot move from here to there without it. This concerns all of us, and theater is the place where these concerns are brought humanly to the fore. That is why we thought that [this play] should [be performed] in this intense part of the world."
Speaking to journalists a day prior to the Israel Festival premiere of his play Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Brook emphasized the need for communication between diverse groups of people around the world.
The play, written by Athol Fugard, deals with apartheid South Africa, and tells the story of a person who adopts a dead man's identity in order to obtain the all-important passbook without which he has neither identity nor the right to exist.
Lebanon, Syria and Turkey all have invited Sizwe Bansi to be staged, he says, and the play demonstrated its universal appeal last month by moving even the most staid of Swiss bankers on its second night in Lausanne.
Though the play is appearing around the world, Brooks doesn't expect that theater alone can or will affect a political situation. That idea is "both na ve and, worse, pretentious. Theater can only bring into the open situations about which we feel intensely. A doctor cannot heal everybody. He can only heal one person at a time. So it is with theater. For an hour or two we can intensely live something together, and there's always the chance that in any group of theatergoers there will be one whom the situation will affect," and perhaps that person will do something. "No positive drop is ever wasted," Brook said.
For the rest of the hour, Brook answered questions about his work with humor and patience. He even fielded an impertinent question about what he'd done with the $1 million Dan David Prize he won last year for his life's achievement in theater from Tel Aviv University.
"That," he said succinctly, "is none of your business."
BRITISH-BORN Brook has made a respected name for himself over the past 40 years, working with actors from all over the globe. His theater, he says, is about building, seeking, exploring and trying to understand. It's why he moved to Paris in the 1970s at the invitation of the French government and established the International Theater Center Bouffe du Nord which gives him the opportunity to work with an international company of actors.
He also spoke of research, such as his ongoing fascination with the brain and "what makes the neurons move around in that box" - a fascination that initially bore fruit in A Man Who, a play based on neurologist Oliver Sack's book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and which was performed at the Israel Festival in 1995.
Brook has also worked on great theater classics, like Hamlet a few years ago, and the iconic A Midsummer Night's Dream that catapulted while he was still a young director to fame during the early years in London.
Now Brook concentrates more on plays like Sizwe Bansi and last year's Tierno Bokar, which examined the nature of tolerance. These are plays that seek "to break out of theater conventions, to give voice to themes that touch people deeply today. These are identity [related] and [provide a] reason to go on living when confronted with complete and terrible oppression."
Over the years, Brook said, "I've come to see that what is in humans [is what] matters. That's why over the years I've done less and less large productions, [preferring] a more intimate focus on human interaction."
Asked why he decided to bring Sizwe Bansi to Jerusalem, Brook said "we go where we're invited," and that "while we're in Jerusalem we'll meet with people here and on the other side of the tragic divide in this country, in Ramallah."
There he will meet with artists and with students, but admits, "I don't know what we'll talk about."
The content of the Ramallah visit isn't as important to him as the fact that he and his actors will interact with members of both communities involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I would feel deep shame if we came here as your guests," he said, "and because of that refused to meet with the other side, if we played the politicians' games and refused human contact. No one gains from saying 'You are less human than me.'"